Twins thank veterans with visit to VA Hospital

MINNEAPOLIS — Of all the events the Minnesota Twins participate in during Hope Week, Tuesday’s was perhaps the highlight for manager Ron Gardenhire.

The Twins skipper was joined by catcher Drew Butera, pitcher P.J. Walters, former Twins Kent Hrbek and Tim Laudner, and mascot T.C. Bear at the VA Hospital in Minneapolis. The group spent time with military veterans, signing autographs and swapping stories.

Gardenhire, a self-proclaimed “Army brat” whose father was in the military for nearly 25 years, had a special appreciation for the service of those men and women he met with Tuesday.

“It’s emotional, really emotional for me,” Gardenhire said. “I look in their eyes. I can see that they appreciate us being here, which that makes it all worthwhile, them understanding that we’re here just to say thank you. But it’s emotional for me because I see my dad right in there in that room.”

Among those in the hospital’s common room that had the chance to meet the Twins was 94-year-old Harley Wishart, who served in World War II as a member of the Air Force’s 49th Fighter Group. Wishart recalled buying tickets to see Minnesota play at the old Metropolitan Stadium, paying just $1 to sit in the left field seats. He and the other veterans were given Twins hats, which were then autographed.

It was clear that after meeting with the players and Gardenhire, Wishart and others were grateful for the experience.

“This (hospital) is a great institution, but the daily life gets dull after a while,” Wishart said. “To see these people come in and greet us, give us caps, it lifted our spirits and gives us something to talk about. . . . It was sure wonderful for the Twins to come and say hi.”

Tuesday marked the third day of the Twins’ second annual Hope Week, in which the players and coaches give back to the community. On Sunday, Justin Morneau hosted his annual Casino Night, which raises money for Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. During Monday’s off day, the Twins took part in a Habitat for Humanity project and also interacted with fans while raising money during the Hanging with the Majors event.

But Tuesday’s visit to the VA Hospital put the game of baseball into perspective for the players after meeting with veterans who risked their lives for their country.

“It’s definitely something that you’re thankful that they gave their time and their service for us to be able to play baseball,” said Butera, whose grandfather was in the military. “To hear what they went through, some of the stories of war, I’m speechless. Sometimes I don’t know what to say other than thank you. This is our way of saying thank you and coming out and talking to them.”

Added Gardenhire: “I think our players, you see them in there, it’s reality for them, too. We’re going to go leave here and we’re going to go back to the ballpark and get ready for a baseball game. You won’t forget some of the faces in there, some of the smiles and some of the tears coming out of their eyes. Us being here, you won’t forget that ever. I never have and I don’t think my guys will, either.”

The Twins will wrap up Hope Week on Friday with “Field Day for the Kids” at Target Field, which allows local kids to meet and interact with the Twins players. Before then, there will be several other surprise events along the way.

For Gardenhire, though, Tuesday’s time spent at the VA Hospital was one he won’t soon forget.

“To see all these men and women in here and understand they’ve been through the same thing my dad has and been a part of that, it’s real special for me,” Gardenhire said. “It’s really neat to be able to shake some hands and tell them thanks.”

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